MEMPHIS — For those of us who do not call Memphis home, President Obama’s upcoming visit to Booker T. Washington High School on Monday seems like just a kind gesture for a city that’s been a bit under water, literally and figuratively.
We’ve all seen the pictures of submerged neighborhoods and lost farmland caused by the rising Mississippi River. With Memphis already handcuffed by a 26 percent poverty rate, reportedly fewer than a hundred of the city’s residents hit the hardest by the flood have insurance.
Some can’t think of returning home until the water recedes, probably sometime in June.
Others have no home to return to.
It’s a challenge to say the least, so yes, glancing from the outside it would appear that Obama’s first visit to Memphis as president couldn’t have come at a better time.
But for Memphians, Obama’s selection of Booker T. to deliver his commencement speech, out of more than 400 schools across the country, is more than just timely support from a politician. It’s yet another sign that maybe, just maybe, after decades of economic hardship, disappointment and unwelcomed notoriety, that finally there is a seat at the table for them.
“It’s a city of hard knocks in a lot of ways,” said Memphis Grizzlies forward Shane Battier, who was drafted by the team in 2001, traded to the Houston Rockets in 2006, and brought back just before the trade deadline this year. “The people who live here and grew up here and stay here really take pride in anything that can boost the image in the city and nationally.
“And much like Detroit, when you say you’re from Detroit, people say ‘Ah, man.’ And when you say you’re from Memphis people say ‘Ah, man,’ but it’s ‘No, don’t feel sorry for me.’ I’m proud of where I’m from. It’s a city of fighters.”
You learn to fight when you’re the seventh-poorest city in the country. When you’re a city that yellow fever outbreaks nearly wiped off the map in the 19th century.
You learn to hold your head up in the midst of trouble when the rest of the world despises you for being the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination or when your biggest tourist attraction is Graceland, famous as the home of Elvis Presley — and for the bathroom where a fat, strung-out Elvis Presley laid down and died at age 42.
For those of us who do not call Memphis home, we see the Grizzlies’ unlikely playoff run as a great underdog story, like so many great underdog stories before.
But if you live here, you know the Grizzlies’ rallying cry of “Grit and Grind” is not just some cool marketing catchphrase to sum up its magical season. It is the autobiography of Memphis, Tenn. If you live here, you know that resilience is the sound of the blues on Beale Street, and you know that long-suffering is the flavor of the barbecue that’s a Memphis specialty.
To read more, click here.